A Hindu monk addresses a gathering of a few hundred people and exhorts them to stop religious conversions and cow slaughter: “Pehle roko, phir toko, aur nahi hua toh…” The crowd responds: “Thoko.” Stop them, chide them, and if it doesn’t work… shoot them.

The monk goes on to repeat the slogan one more time, urging the crowd to respond loudly. The crowd obliges with an even more vigorous chant of “thoko”.

This scene is from video footage recorded at a Dharam Sansad, or religious conclave, held in December – not the one in Haridwar in Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled Uttarakhand.

Instead, the hate speech was made in Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh, under the watch of the Bhupesh Baghel-led Congress government.

The Haridwar event, where Hindu monks called for Muslims to be killed, was widely criticised by Congress leaders. “Strictest action should be taken against those who incite hatred and violence of this kind,” the party’s general secretary Priyanka Gandhi had said, referring to the Haridwar hate speeches.

In Chhattisgarh, however, Congress leader Pramod Dubey thanked Ram Balak Das, the Hindu monk who led the chant of “shoot them”, for his “sermon” when he spoke from the stage soon after. “You are our guru,” said Dubey, the chairman of the Raipur Municipal Corporation, addressing Balak Das by his name. “It is our duty to spread your message to protect Sanatan Dharma, for it is not just your responsibility.”

When contacted by Scroll.in, Dubey said he was a guest at the event. “Some good things were also said there,” he said. “But if you are called for a wedding and a third person creates a scene what can you do?”

However, Neelkanth Tripathi, who runs the Neelkanth Seva Sanstha, one of the two organisers of the event, contested this. A special committee had been set up to organise the event and Dubey, according to Tripathi, was its president.

‘I have killed many people’

The Dharam Sansad, or religious parliament, held on December 25 and 26 at Raipur, was organised by Neelkanth Sewa Sansthan and the Doodhadhari Math. A pamphlet summed up its agenda in six points, of which one stated: “Bharat desh ko Hindu rashtra ghoshit kiya jaaye.” India should be declared a Hindu nation.

“The Hindu Rashtra was on the agenda in the sense that there was to be discussion in the Dharma Sansad how it could be achieved,” Tripathi said.

The conclave briefly made national news when a video surfaced showing Hindu religious leader Kalicharan Maharaj abusing Mahatma Gandhi.

The Chhattisgarh police promptly registered a case against him – incidentally, based on a police complaint filed by Dubey – under sections 505(2) and 294 of the India Penal Code. While 505(2) pertains to “statements creating or promoting enmity, hatred or ill will between classes”, the latter deals with “obscene utterances in public space”.

However, video footage now reveals worse was said at the event.

Several speakers made inflammatory remarks about Islam and Christianity. Some went a step further, invoking and threatening violence.

Swami Sampurnanda, who had come to attend the conclave from Haryana’s Kurukshetra where he is based, made oblique references to violence. “Sant shanti-kaal me sant hai, kranti-kaal me senapati ban jaate hai,” he said. “Saints remain saints only in peace-time, they become warriors during strife.”

Another saffron-clad monk, Triveni Das, launched a no-holds-barred attack on Islam in his speech, calling it a violent religion. “Dharti par katle-aam macha rache hai,” he alleged. “Muslims have unleashed mass murders in the world.” Muslims account for barely 2% of Chhattisgarh’s population.

However, it was not just Islam that was at the receiving end of the speakers’ wrath at the conference. A common motif across most speeches was another Hindutva anxiety: the conversion of Adivasis and Dalits to Christianity. Scheduled Tribes, as Adivasi communities are officially known in India, account for 30.62% of Chhattisgarh’s population. Hindutva groups have long attempted to bring them into the Hindu fold.

The chief of Arya Samaj in Chhattisgarh, Acharya Anshu Dev, spoke of the “urgent” need to do “ghar wapsi”, or reconversion, of those who had converted to Christianity. “In Chhattisgarh, conversions are happening day and night, but no pastor is ever arrested for it,” he said. “If we can convert them all back, we will automatically get a Hindu Rashtra.”

Outside the Dharam Sansad venue, Congress leaders put up billboards featuring Chhattisgarh chief minister Bhupesh Baghel.

The most direct incitement to violence came from Ram Balak Das, a 45-year-old Hindu monk affiliated to the Pateshwar Dham in Chhattisgarh’s Balod district. He boasted that he had killed several people in his quest to prevent cow slaughter over the years. “Bahut haat-paanv kaate hain, bahut logon ko maara hain, peeta hain,” he can be heard saying. “I have cut many a limb, I have killed and assaulted several people.”

Balak Das said he had participated in violence when Chhattisgarh used to be part of Madhya Pradesh – before the bifurcation in 2000 – and had no cow protection law or “gau seva aayog”. Chhattisgarh’s cow protection commission was set up by the Bharatiya Janata Party government when it came to power in the state in 2003. It governed the state for three straight terms till 2018 when it faced a crushing defeat at the Congress hands.

Das went on to say that while Hindu monks may preach that Hindutva was not supposed to be propagated using violence, he believed Hindu households ought to arm themselves with talwars, or swords, irrespectively. Calls for violence got more explicit as his address progressed, leading to the chants of “thoko” or “shoot them”.

Ram Balak Das is affiliated to the Pateshwar Dham in Chhattisgarh’s Balod district. This photograph, featured on his Facebook page, is not from the Dharam Sansad event.

Apart from the arrest of Kalicharan, who is now in judicial custody, the Chhattisgarh police have not arrested or started proceedings against anyone else. “We are only looking into the complaint against Kalicharan,” said Prashant Agarwal, the superintendent of Raipur police.

Balak Das boasted that the government would not dare touch him. “Based on my speech, the government could have taken action against me,” he told this reporter over the phone from Chhattisgarh. “They know my past too, it is there in the court records, but the government steers clear of me because they know if they touch me it will backfire.”

To make his point, Das pointed out how the police did not even call in him for questioning. “Kalicharan stayed with me for two nights, he touched my feet before delivering his speech,” he said.

‘Racing to match the BJP’s Hindutva’

This lack of action against hate speeches targetting religious minorities may appear to go against the Congress’s stated position on the matter, but it has not come as a surprise to observers of Chhattisgarh politics.

Critics of the Bhupesh Baghel-led government have often accused it of peddling soft Hindutva. After assuming charge in 2018, the Baghel government has initiated several projects centred around cows, considered holy by most Hindus. In a bid to discourage farmers from selling off non-milch cows, the government procures cow dung from them. The chief minister is often seen inaugurating and inspecting cowsheds.

The Baghel government has also been trying to project and promote the state as the material home of the Hindu deity Ram. In 2020, it laid the foundation stone for the expansion of an ancient temple of Mata Kaushalya, considered the mother of Ram, in Raipur. The same year, it organised a Ramayana-themed four-day long mega rally to mark two years of the government.

The rally, christened Ram Van Gaman Paripath Rath Yatra, traversed the path Ram is believed to have taken during his 14 years of exile as described in the epic Ramayana. The Chhattisgarh government has developed the track, which it calls the Ram Van Gaman Paripath, at a cost of Rs 134 crore.

The government, for its part, has tried casting these projects as economic enterprises – cow dung as a source of electricity, the Ram Van Gaman Paripath as a tourist circuit.

But not everyone buys that. The rath yatra ran afoul of Adivasi groups in the state who accused the government of Hindu majoritarianism and being insensitive to the distinct religious beliefs and customs of the state’s indigenous communities.

Observers say that while the Congress has a long history of indulging in convenient Hindutva politics, the situation in Chhattisgarh was somewhat unique. “Here, the government seems to be almost racing to match the BJP’s Hindutva,” said Alok Shukla, an activist based in the state. “They can give it an economic spin but so much of the Congress’s politics here revolves around cows and temples.”

As for the Raipur congregation, Shukla pointed out that several Congress leaders featured in the official invite. (An aide of chief minister Baghel said that he was supposed to attend too.) Apart from Dubey, Mahant Ram Sundar Das, a former Congress legislator and the chairman of the Chhattisgarh Gau Seva Ayog, was the chair of the event. Another senior leader and the state’s Yoga Commission chief, Gyanesh Sharma, was also in attendance.

While Sundar Das, who is the head priest of the Doodhadhari Math, walked off the stage while Kalicharan Maharaj was attacking Gandhi and later even condemned his remarks, Shukla said it meant little given the anti-minority tenor of the event.

“The whole event was about glorifying a Hindu Rashtra,” he said. “Gandhi’s thoughts will live on, but the more urgent threat right now is against minorities. They did nothing to condemn those sentiments that flowed so freely there.”